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Monday, Apr 28, 2008
Kotaku's gone back to the WiG, so we're keeping the TWiG...Here are the new releases for the week of 2008-04-28.

You know, you have to give Iron Man some credit.  Not only is Sega’s adaptation of the soon-to-be blockbuster film being released on every single major console and portable system this week, but it single-handedly ensured that every single system had at least one game to show off this week (thus avoiding the fate of withstanding a surely snarky synonym for “zero” in its release column).  The demo that Sega released on Xbox Live isn’t even all that bad, even if its all-too-short play time does cut out right when it seems as though the game might just get exciting.


No matter—if you’ve been at all privy to the world of gaming journalism in the past week, you know that anything on this list that isn’t Grand Theft Auto IV is being seriously, seriously overshadowed by Grand Theft Auto IV.  You’ve seen the exclusive review (and while I won’t begrudge them for it, I hope IGN thought long and hard about dishing out that 10 when they knew they’d be under scrutiny for being the only outlet allowed to break the dated review embargo that the rest of the media has had to follow), and heck, you’ve probably seen the rest of the reviews so far as well.  That Metacritic wall o’ 100s is awfully impressive, if not altogether unexpected.


The sheer magnitude of Grand Theft Auto IV‘s release is enough to make one wonder: why in the world would Nintendo choose to release Mario Kart Wii a mere two days before perhaps the most highly-anticipated release of 2008?  One could make the argument that the audience for the two games is different, but it intersects in enough places that the buying public for Mario Kart can’t help but be affected, at least a little bit.  One could also say that Mario Kart is a strong enough franchise that it’ll get its sales over the long-term, and it will be fine.  This is probably true—and I do expect that Mario Kart will sell gobs of product and little plastic wheels regardless of what other releases happen to coincide with its own—but still.  Mario Kart Wii got one, maybe two days of serious publicity when the journalists got their copies, only to be swallowed almost immediately by the Grand Theft Auto behemoth.  Pushing off the release (or moving it up, even) by a week or two might have been able to ensure a solid stream of publicity surrounding its release.  As it is, it’s going to have to rely on an admittedly sizable established fanbase.


Of course, one could also argue that that fanbase has been what has been sustaining Nintendo all along, but it wouldn’t hurt to try like hell to expand that fanbase, especially when there is such a sizable new install base just sitting there, waiting to be taken advantage of.  Nintendo apparently sees Mario Kart as a “bridge game”—that is, a game that could help casual players transition to more involved gaming experiences—and having had a day or two to play the game, this makes sense, given that it had the four game-playing members (that is, myself, my wife, and my kids) playing a game together for the first time since Wii Sports first invaded our home and free time.  Still, it’s not going to be a bridge for anyone who doesn’t notice its release.


Other releases this week include the happily budget-priced SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 (a much cheaper way to get your Neo Geo fix than the Virtual Console, as it turns out), and Konami’s contributions to the Nintendo DS’s continued dominance as a lifestyle machine (as opposed to a simple game machine), called Let’s Yoga! and Let’s Pilates!.  I would be sarcastic about these things, but I may buy them.  Somehow, these activities seem more palatable when you plug them into a DS and pretend they’re games.


Perhaps I’ve said too much.  Go take a look at this week’s release list, after the jump…


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Monday, Apr 28, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
John Andrew Fredrick of the Black Watch owns Donny Osmond's guitar and he's really happy about it.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I dropped an unabridged Random House dictionary on my foot while wearing flip-flops. Needless to say, the tears welled up big time.


2. The fictional character most like you?
I am Holden Caulfield.  My penchant for italics proves it.


3. The greatest album, ever?
The greatest album ever is Revolver, but if you quote me, The White Album and Rubber Soul are going to be seriously miffed.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Starsailor. (Just kidding: they’re the worst.)


5. Your ideal brain food?
I’ve never tried the sesos tacos at any truck in Los Angeles.


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Monday, Apr 28, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet
Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet, releasing 20 May on Nettwerk Records [Streaming]
Video [Strange]


Flight of the Conchords
Ladies of the World [MP3]
     


Amy LaVere
That Beat (Sun Studio Sessions series) [Video]


Jef Stott
Lamaset (Miami Mix) [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


Sleepercar
Stumble In [MP3]
     


Thalia Zedek Band
Lower Allston [MP3]
     


Eric Avery
All Remote and No Control [MP3]
     



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Sunday, Apr 27, 2008


With the faux infighting of Baby Mama and Harold and Kumar 2 making the 25 April weekend as anticlimactic, cinematically speaking, as possible, it’s time to take a look back at the movies that made the last four months a Bataan Death March of motion picture torture. Of course, bad is in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes, it’s impossible to deny the dearth of imagination and originality cascading off the screen. Frequently, we chalk it up to needing a paycheck. In other instances, it’s the marketing minds that determine retardation, and that redundancy equals receipts. Of course we, the audience, are somewhat culpable. We claim to hate how Hollywood throws us the same old slop every year, and yet we turn out in droves for the carbon copy comic book movie, or the indistinguishable slacker comedy.


Yet looking over this quintet of crap, this fivesome of flotsam, it’s clear that some studios aren’t even paying attention. Even worse, the mindbending mediocrity of some of these choices seems to indicate that highly paid industry bosses think we’re drooling, dunderheaded morons. How else would you explain giving Uwe Boll more production value, offering up yet another J-Horror remake from a pair of Frenchmen? Does Larry the Cable Guy really need more beer and chew money, and could someone please stop the terrible, tedious lampoons before the genre sees fit to actually eat itself? Of course nothing could save us from the Spring’s worst endeavor, a purposeful slap in the face by a foreign filmmaker who believes the West loves movie violence a bit too much. Nothing like fighting fire with foolishness.


So here they are, SE&L‘s selections for the titles that made the first quarter of 2008 such a trying theatrical experience. And don’t think we forgot about you 88 Minutes, Doomsday, Untraceable, or Jumper. It’s just that, with only so much bile to go around, it’s better to reserve one’s jaded judgment for a future feature than to come out shooting blanks. Let’s begin with number five:



# 5 - In the Name of the King: A Dragon Siege Tale dir. Uwe Boll


Dr. Uwe Boll. What more needs to be said, really? True, his past motion picture output has more or less destined him to take over Ed Wood as the worst director who ever lived, but there were actually people who pointed to this production (and his summer stool sample, Postal) and argued that he has the potential to make good movies. Apparently, he’s reserving that ability for sometime in the future. When you consider his cast here is made up of Jason Statham, Leelee Sobieski, Ron Pearlman, and Ray Liotta, the omens of awfulness seem rather slight. Then Burt Reynolds shows up as the title ruler and any artistic authenticity gets flushed down the toilet.

But the acting is not the only oddball element in this Lord of the Rings redux-ulousness. The CGI is sloppy, to say the least, and the narrative lacks the kind of creative context that keeps us wondering about the next plot point. Instead, we are merely dropped in the middle of this Dungeons Without Dragons dreck and asked to buy every unconvincing moment of it. The pacing is schizophrenic, the editing clearly from the “meanwhile, in another part of the film” school of cutting. In fact, while there are some improvements shown along the way, it’s clear that Boll is only getting worse when it comes to mastering the language of film.



#4 - The Eye dire. David Moreau and Xavier Palud


Beyond disheartening, this was just plain abysmal. Anyone lucky enough to see David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s brilliant Ils (released in the US as Them) knows that this French filmmaking duo can really deliver the shivers. Their simple set-up, involving a secluded Romanian estate and a couple victimized by some unseen invaders was a stark, suspenseful romp. It literally rekindled one’s faith in the subtler forms of the horror genre. This rancid remake re-killed it. Granted, the mere presence of Jessica Alba in the lead guarantees a groan inducing time (Sin City aside), but our directors also seem to suffer from some kind of cinematic amnesia. They seem to have forgotten everything that made Ils so wonderful.

Instead, we get the standard J-Horror junk…unseen phantoms, lots of spooky noises, scenery that shifts between the supernatural and the just plain stupid realms. Even worse, Moreau and Palud rely on gimmicky cinematic stunts to sell this story of a blind musician who ends up with the corneas of a rural clairvoyant. While the narrative mirrors its Asian counterpart rather closely, the usual cultural inconsistencies occur. Americans like to think of themselves as much less superstitious than some other world citizens. Sadly, this is the kind of movie that relies on such made-up mumbo jumbo to work.



#3 - Witless Protection dir. Charles Robert Carner


It’s time to put this sleeve-less, malapropism prone menace out of our misery once and for all. This is by far the worst film the former Blue Collar Comedy tour titan has ever made - and that includes the despicable Delta Farce and the disposable Larry the Cable Guy - Health Inspector. Sure, NASCAR nation can’t get enough of his cornfed cornball cracker-isms, a combination of the Ku Klux Klan and observational humor. But that doesn’t mean it translates successfully into a 90 minute movie. Unfortunately, this cesspool extends said running time by another 7!

The truth be told, there is nothing really wrong with pandering to a narrow demographic. Tyler Perry does it all the time, and his movies literally print their own payouts. But for some reason - maybe it’s the melting pot make-up of the human race - such blinkered bullspit doesn’t wind up being universally hilarious. Sure, there are moments when a chuckle may unexpectedly pass from your lips, but it could be yourself you are laughing at. After all, just think about it - you paid $10 to see this Gomer geek show, and you ain’t ever getting that money (or those brain cells) back.



#2 - Meet the Spartans dir. Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer


Gene Siskel once said that the greatest sin a big screen comedy can commit is not being funny. Actually, the late great critic was wrong. A pointless parody positioned as an all out laughfest is the true Hitler of humor. One would assume that after Scary Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie (and most recently, Superhero Movie), all genre in-joking would be covered. Apparently, the homo-erotic spectacle of 300 needed tweaking as well. Enter the talentless twaddle that passes as ability from screenwriters/directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. These guys seem capable of taking any current pop culture trend and turn it into the most tired of token takes.


Indeed, hack burlesque comedians are more witty and inventive than this dung - and referring to half-naked musclemen as closeted gays is not the height of satire. Nothing here works - not the timing, not the acting, not the all-important cinematic spoofs. Instead, the pair’s poisonous grab bag approach makes sure that no one subject survives unscathed. Oh, but it is unfunny. Very unfunny indeed. As a matter of fact, rumor has it that the motion picture category of comedy itself has filed a restraining order against these two spoof stalkers.



#1 - Funny Games dir. Michael Haneke


There is nothing worse than an ex-girlfriend who hates you so much that she becomes obsessed with you (it happens with ex-boyfriends too, so no gender baiting, okay?). In that regard, Austrian director Michael Haneke is such a jilted lover. You see, he clearly was enraptured by American moviemaking at some point in his career, but as with most foreign entrants into the industry’s boudoir, he was rejected. So what does he do in return? He takes all of his anger and aggression out on his former paramour with a little experiment in shite called Funny Games. This is supposed to be a deconstruction of the deconstruction of the standard serial killer thriller. Instead, it’s garbage.


By augmenting the very confines of cinema, but subverting our expectations out of a clear egomaniacal drive to make a point, Haneke’s hate permeates every frame. Like arguing that abuse is unhealthy by beating someone over the head, this movie wallows in the very genre excesses that the filmmaker wants to foil. Even worse, he purposefully insults the audience, asking them to accept his treatise as truth even when he doesn’t have the balls or backbone to support his stance. There have been few films as irredeemable as Funny Games. It’s not only one of this year’s worst - it’s a worthy competitor to the “all time” title.


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Saturday, Apr 26, 2008


It was the final nail in his financial coffin, the epic that would eventually close his by now infamous Spanish studios. After the troubled production surrounding his last epic, 55 Days at Peking, many believed producer Samuel Bronston would exercise some manner of restraint. But in true visionary form, he actually tore down his original Rome sets when actor Charleton Heston (who had appeared in El Cid) expressed interest in the Chinese spectacle. When the famous star eventually rejected a role in Fall, Bronston hired Stephen Boyd, and then rebuilt the entire Forum and most of the ancient city across 55 sprawling acres. Budgeted at $20 million (in 1964 dollars), Fall flopped, and even with its high profile cast, it couldn’t save the producer’s professional reputation.


That’s the great thing about DVD. It can help reestablish an unfairly maligned career. It can also argue for filmmaking facets that contributed to an already predetermined downfall. Both elements are present in the The Weinstein Company’s gorgeous restoration of The Fall of the Roman Empire. Presented over three discs and supplemented with a wealth of explanatory material, we get a chance to see Bronston’s vision the way he intended it (sans the 70mm Ultra Panavision Cinerama, that is). We also get an opportunity to witness the hubris that believed audiences would enjoy a scattered, three hour dramatization of the decline of the famed civilization. With the usual international casting conceit, and lots of expansive sets, director Anthony Mann was given a simple mandate - make it big. He frequently went further, making it boring as well.


While fighting Germanic forces north of his empire, Marcus Aurelius is poisoned by conspirators. Unable to name his beloved friend General Gaius Livius as his intended successor, the role of emperor falls on the ruler’s ineffectual son, Commodus. After marrying off his sister - and Livius’ lover - Lucilla to an Armenia king, he begins his reign. Believing that the road to peace is best paved with war and taxes, he causes rebellion amongst many of the outlying regions. In the meantime, Livius brokers a truce with the North, and uses his connection to Aurelius’ adviser Timonides to get the Roman Senate to endorse it. Of course, Commodus disapproves. As the leader’s hubris grows, his control on the empire wanes. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt, Lucilla is sentenced to death. She is joined by Livius, who has been set up by his own men. A final gladiatorial battle for the fate of Rome awaits our two competing conquerors.


Over the years, some have argued that Gladiator glommed on and stole most of the meaning from this overstuffed production, yet what’s most clear about The Fall of the Roman Empire is that it is a movie at odds with itself. On the one hand, director Anthony Mann and his fine group of actors - Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Sophia Loren - do a wonderful job of bringing out the personal interplay and individual strife that would lead to the collapse of the mighty civilization from the inside out. We believe in the dynamic between the cast, and see how the fate of men (and one woman) could lead to the undermining and the misery of half the world. It’s not a new story - absolute power corrupts absolutely, in a nutshell - but Mann does indeed make it come alive.


On the opposite end is Bronston’s desire for more: more sets; more battle sequences; more extras. What we witness onscreen does indeed look impressive. While many marveled at Ridley Scott’s CGI version of the famed Italian city, Rome and its fantastic Forum look so much more real here. Of course, the tactile effect of a real practical backdrop does help. But there are other elements that are just as successful - the Temple of Jupiter (with the head of Commodus), the winter camp of Marcus Aurelius, the sweeping battlefields. Yet they seem to exist outside of the more intimate material at hand. The Fall of the Roman Empire can frequently feel like a character study played out amongst the very planets themselves. Scope and scale frequently countermand narrative and nuance.


Of course, that was the point. Bronston never thought that a non-spectacle would fill seats. The cinema was still battling TV for the all-important entertainment soul of the American public, and without something sensational to sell, the small screen’s convenience and novelty continued to win out. In many ways, such massive bombast was indeed revolutionary. It was mimicked as recently as the late ‘80s/early’90s, when the VCR and home video threatened to make movie-going obsolete. The studios responded with special effects laden efforts. To paraphrase the position - the viewer never starves when there’s eye candy around.


It was the same four decades ago. Of course, the sweets have soured a little since then. Much of Fall feels forced, pageantry played to the hilt simply because it can be. Plummer is wonderful as the egomaniacal brat, and Mason literally makes the movie. Of course, there are performers like Guinness who appear to be putting in the miles without delivering much of the necessary effort, and Loren was still in iconic beauty mode. She was much better back when she was battling Heston (off screen) during El Cid. Yet the optical wonder provided here, the sheer opulence of Mann’s moviemaking and Bronston’s approach give The Fall of the Roman Empire just enough to keep us going. It may be a tough road to hoe sometime, but the overall effect is impressive.


Equally extraordinary is this new DVD edition. Named after the Weinstein’s mother Miriam, the sheer wealth of added content here should make even the most amateur film historian weep with delight. The movie itself contains a commentary by Bronston’s son Bill and his biographer Mel Martin. While a tad too self-congratulatory (after all, they aren’t really going to criticize the man), it’s still a remarkable discussion. Disc Two trots out the Making-Ofs and the Behind the Scenes featurettes. One of the best highlights the “fact vs. fiction” way in which history is manipulated by Hollywood to fit its dramatic needs. Finally, a third DVD delivers a series of short films, commissioned by the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which offers a classroom like take on Roman History (this material is only available as part of the limited edition package).


Frankly, anyone coming to this film hoping for historical accuracy should really seek some cinematic guidance. The Fall of the Roman Empire is meant to be nothing more than a sumptuous banquet of motion picture excesses served with a side dish of the slightest narrative accuracy. That Samuel Bronston saw this as the ultimate form of entertainment speaks as much for his approach as a producer as his fate as a filmmaker. It’s not surprising that he ended up going bankrupt when Fall tanked. Too much of what he was - and always would be - was wrapped up in this extremist ideal. And just like all outsized imaginations, a crash was inevitable. The Fall of the Roman Empire may not be the most notorious motion picture morass in the history of the medium, but for Samuel Bronston, it was the ultimate expression of what he was - for better and for worse.


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